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On most weekday mornings 1-year-old William Niles wakes to his mother’s smile. His mother, Kristen Holt, 32, changes and feeds him before leaving for her job managing a clothing boutique. Instead of being rushed to day care, though, William spends early mornings in the family room where his grandfather plays guitar and sings worship songs. He routinely goes with his grandma to water the deck plants and then across the grassy backyard to pet the neighbor’s sheep.
But even grandparents have to work. Ron Holt, 55, and his wife Tish, 53, run an online marketing company from their Petaluma, Calif., home. When William is not napping, he is right in the mix, building blocks at their feet, eating Cheerios at the table, and watching Baby Einstein. Sometimes he is noisy during a phone call, and Ron has to tell a customer, “Oh, that’s my grandson.”
The Holts don’t mind juggling William’s needs and their work demands. Tish grew up in a large Latino family from Texas that prioritized shared meals and maintained the motto “relationships trump schedules.” Ron appreciates the breaks in the day to read William a story or push trucks across the wood floor: “I’m more childlike with him around. I’m amazed at the level of enjoyment I experience. Having been down this road before … I often laugh at the things I would have stressed over as a new father.”
Like the Holts, a growing number of couples entering their “golden years” are turning the idea of retirement on its head: They are shifting schedules, leisure plans, and living spaces to take up child-rearing again—this time with their grandchildren.
On a brisk summer afternoon, Kristen plays catch-up on her day off while Tish serves tea and warm popovers with raspberry jelly. William is asleep, but his gear and toys litter the Holt’s well-decorated, candle-scented house. Tish’s office is now in the garage, freeing a bedroom for Kristen and William.
Initially, Kristen’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a shock—but Ron and Tish said they would help. With their support, Kristen and her boyfriend Mike Niles committed to rebuilding their relationship, and last month became engaged.
Despite the circumstances, William has been “one celebrated little boy,” Kristen says. The Holts give William the stability of a loving home, while Niles spends weekends with him and visits every night after work, putting him to bed. Kristen also saves on rent and child care—no small thing in the San Francisco Bay area where living costs are high and parents spend up to $2,000 a month on child care, almost double the national average.
In many cases, single parents and dual-income families are looking to their empty-nester parents for assistance, since day care costs have nearly doubled since the mid-1980s. Multigenerational homes have steadily increased, up 64 percent in the past two decades, according to census data. Those numbers rose sharply in 2007 when the economic recession began. Now, one in 10 children lives with grandparents, with most of those homes including the parents.
Challenges exist. William struggled for months to sleep through the night. During the day, Ron and Tish have to teach him boundaries when he pulls books off shelves, unplugs cords, or touches the computer. Some days, Tish could use an afternoon nap, but William needs attention: “It reminds me of those early days as a mother when I had to multitask.” William likes to wrestle, play ball, and run—the Holts have to stay active to keep up. Ron says, “Sure, I can’t run as fast playing ball. I may groan a bit and my muscles ache getting on the floor chasing after him. But I’m not so aware of my limitations as my new ability to appreciate more.”
Kristen and William’s living situation is temporary, and the Holts have mixed feelings when they contemplate an empty nest. One of their three daughters works in Japan, while another is newly married and pregnant in Minnesota. They’re happy to see them living out the values they learned at home, but they wish they lived close by.
For some, that hope is becoming a reality. John Woodruff, now 54, and his wife Lea Ann, 55, live with their two college-age sons, their daughter and son-in-law, and four grandchildren in the Woodruff’s Sebastopol, Calif., home. Caged bunnies, a swing set, and outdoor toys spot their acre of land, once an apple orchard and still surrounded by sprawling trees. Inside, stacks of books line the staircase. Chairs, booster seats, and a high chair cram a narrow dining table.
Lea Ann is caretaker extraordinaire: She does all the laundry and keeps track of everything with a master calendar on their kitchen freezer. “If it isn’t on the calendar, it doesn’t happen,” she says of neatly penciled chores, college classes, date nights, and twice-weekly meals with nearby extended family: “Having a full house keeps me young. It keeps me from being lazy.”
Her daughter Grace said as a newlywed, she “never planned on moving back home,” but now the Woodruffs are intertwined in their everyday life. Lea Ann wakes the kids with picture books and phonics. She attends to the two younger children while Grace, 27, teaches the older two. After dinners, John slips the grandkids desserts and takes them to the backyard swing for story time. The family often hikes together on weekends.
Last year, Lea Ann’s 80-year-old mother spent her final nine months in a hospital bed in their living room before dying of cancer in November. She didn’t complain about the noise of her great-grandchildren, ages 1 to 7, as they homeschooled and played in that same room.
The extended family has now been together for five years. Finances at first motivated the decision, but now, as son-in-law Dan Fikkert’s work stabilizes, the Woodruffs and Fikkerts talk of extending the kitchen and adding a family room and two bedrooms—not moving out.